War Horse is written from the point-of-view of a young colt, Joey, who is bought by a drunkard farmer at auction. The farmer’s son, Albert, takes a shine to Joey and promises to raise him himself. The story is as much about their bond as it is about the horrors of war, when Joey is sold to the army and goes off to be a cavalry horse.
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I was irresistibly reminded of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty while reading this, not because they’re both about horses, but because of the way the story follows Joey being taken in by different owners, some kind, some not-so-kind. The general message behind both of these novels is that humans should pay more attention to the way they treat their fellow creatures.
The beginning is a bit slow, with very simple sentences, sometimes a bit too simple as they can read like a list. I believe this book is meant to be read by children as well as adults, so at times it felt a bit too young.
The story really picks up, though, when Joey becomes a war horse. Morpurgo takes you right into the middle of the action, and as I had the illustrated edition, I had extra help in believing I was really there. I can’t fault the way the author didn’t hold back when it came to describing the worst parts of war.
My favourite part, both in the book and the play, was when an English soldier and a German soldier flip a coin to see who gets Joey.
‘In an hour, maybe, or two,’ he said. ‘We will be trying our best again each other to kill. God only knows why we do it, and I think he has maybe forgotten why. Goodbye Welshman. We have shown them, haven’t we? We have shown them that any problem can be solved between people if only they can trust each other. That is all it needs, no?’
Even today, Germany are still very much blamed for both World Wars, and this is still reflected in Western TV and film – the English/Americans are always the heroes, and the Germans are always the enemies. I loved that Morpurgo did not do this. He made it very clear that there are cruel English people and cruel German people, and kindness on both sides as well. It’s funny how in a story about a mistreated horse, it was this interaction between people that really got to me.
I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. I watched the stage show recently and I think I was expecting the same story. A lot of it was the same, but some of my favourite characters from the show only briefly appeared in the novel.
I also didn’t get the same emotion from the book as I did the play. I finished the play with tears running down my face. That’s not to say I wasn’t affected by this book – it’s the sort of story you finish with a watery smile.
However, I think the language is a little too simple in places, and it makes the story feel very slow, despite some action-packed scenes.
I think in historical terms, this would be a great text to introduce into schools, because it’s easy to read and it gives an insight into the parts of war that the younger generation don’t usually hear about. I wanted to mention one of the lines that spoke to me most about the downright silliness of war:
”I tell you, my friend,’ he said one day. ‘I tell you that I am the only sane man in the regiment. It’s the others that are mad, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different colour uniform and speaks a different language?”
It makes me a little sad because I wanted to love this book, but I’m rating this 3.5 / 5. This is mainly because a lot of the time, I felt like I just wanted to get to the end.
However, that’s not to say I wouldn’t recommend this book, and I would definitely recommend the play.
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